I am so proud of my mother. She is 89 years old and has been living a very full life on her own since my father died eight years ago. I’ve written before about her amazing energy and activity level—she serves on multiple boards and is a member of two book clubs, participates in religious activities and education, and volunteers weekly at the local hospital and a nearby food pantry.
But after taking another tumble this past August—her third in just a year—and with the isolation of COVID taking a toll on her, she was brave enough to say that it was time to sell her home and move into a nearby independent-living community.
My mother is a rarity—very few seniors would make this statement, fearing that it is an admission of age and frailty and would lead to a loss of independence. But mom’s pragmatic, and her positive attitude should be an inspiration to us all. She is fed up with Zoom calls, and she misses in-person human interaction. And no matter how many clubs and conversations she has, at the end of most days, she is cooking for just herself and eating alone. She knows very well the importance of community for her mental and emotional health…and she is worried about the significant risks of taking another fall.
Seniors—pay heed! It is far more powerful to choose a change than to feel forced to do it.
You know what all this means—the big clean-out. Nearly 65 years of accumulated “stuff”—some treasures, some junk that should have been thrown out long ago. Hundreds of VHS movies that should have been donated a decade ago when they still had value…bed linens from my childhood…spices purchased 27 years ago…a jar of Sanka instant decaffeinated coffee just in case someone asks for a cup (in this day and age of designer coffee, does anyone ever ask for a cup of Sanka?). The list goes on and on and on, and my siblings and I are having many good laughs about some of these relics.
It can be overwhelming—but cleaning out each drawer, shelf and cabinet has been a wonderful archaeological dig through our family’s past, prompting us to remember many long-forgotten moments. Even better has been the fact that my siblings and I (and our spouses) are all participating in the process so we can share the lore with each other and send pictures to the grandchildren, offering them a glimpse of family history.
Among the treasures we have found…
Childhood art projects. Yes…50+ years later, it is finally time to throw away the clay bust of our Airedale terrier that I made in middle school…the paper maché chicken in a frying pan that my sister made (why a chicken in a frying pan, I don’t know)…and the young baby chick emerging from its shell, also made by my sister, not to mention the framed note “written” by my brother at three years of age..
Childhood games. A box of Scribbage—one of the original word-cube games—from the 1960s alongside our old Nok Hockey and Carrom boards. Just the thought of playing Carrom makes my fingers sore as I recall the many hours we spent playing it as a family.
My father’s history as a local track star. We all had seen the photos of my dad and his track team hanging on the wall. But I hadn’t noticed the frame of medals he’d won and the thick scrapbook of newspaper clippings from his track career. Nor had any of us noticed the other scrapbooks about his involvement in town politics and his synagogue. Buried treasures unearthed.
Dad’s journals and project lists. We laughed at the business ideas that were repeated over and over and over through the years, heartened by his notes regarding things and individuals he was concerned about. And we were saddened by how possessed he was by his mission to make a difference in the world.
Kitchenware and serving pieces long forgotten: While rummaging through the kitchen and dining room cabinets, we uncovered a trove of original mid-century bowls, platters and serving pieces that came out only when friends joined us for special dinners. Flashbacks of the Jell-O molds and sliced pineapples with maraschino cherries…memories of my parents’ dear friends and their hours of duplicate bridge games. All these moments that were deeply buried bubbled to the surface when I saw that lime-green-and-yellow vegetable bowl and the teak tray with the mini cast-iron pans.
And so, so many old family photos framed and displayed on the walls, including ones that were added shortly after my dad’s stroke. My girls—ages four and seven at the time—created a board of photographs for his speech therapy so they could demonstrate each of the sounds and mouth shapes he needed to recover his speech.
This process is hard—very hard—and overwhelming for everyone involved. I can see it especially beginning to wear on my mother as she tries not to feel attacked by our constant call to “throw it out.” Her Depression-era mindset is screaming Someone can use it—even when it’s a ratan chair with stained cushions and a leg that is unraveling.
We all accumulate so much stuff. If you look around your house now, you will notice items that have been invisible for years—perhaps some valuable vases or some useless items that should have been thrown out years ago like the Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal accumulating dust on top of a bedroom armoire for the past 20+ years.
There is sadness on so many levels—the ending of an era and far too many items to be sent to landfills. We are selling and donating as much as possible in the hopes of enriching others’ lives and minimizing the effects on the planet. And my husband and I have been inspired to prune our own basement, attics and shelves now to avoid becoming overwhelmed by our own “stuff” later on.
On the flipside is the joy of connection that is part of this process. When you put these pieces together, they tell a tale. For my family, it’s a tale of love, ambition, a never-ending desire to learn, and to contribute to the community. While it’s easy to simply throw these items in the dumpster, it has been great fun to pause and process the stories behind them…to remember the family moments and honor the individual achievements…to understand the humans behind the choices that brought these items into our home for decades and lifetimes.
In our Hiner home, my favorite part of Christmas is telling the stories behind each of the ornaments. It’s part of our family’s oral history. Cleaning my mom’s house is a giant telling and remembering of the stories of our Edelston life. It’s been beautiful so far, and we have so much more to go.